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Trial, Effort, Experience

The first semester I began teaching my first college course, I taught a sophomore English course, Composition II. It was not too long before I began to question the objectives I had proposed in my initial syllabus. It became obvious that there were going to be problems. I had naively assumed, based on the fact that this was the second in a sequence of composition courses, my students had been adequately prepared to write short essays. Accordingly, I had designed my course requirements to reflect this basic assumption. As I understood things, my course was supposed to add another dimension to their previous writing experience. My primary goal was to teach them how to develop and write an analytical research paper drawing upon their reading of selected fiction, mostly short stories and plays.

The truth dawned on me when I received their first written assignments. Perhaps I should have not been so surprised, but given my inexperience, I was not prepared for what I encountered. These very preliminary written assignments revealed some rather serious deficiencies in critical writing skills by a fair number of my students. I found this somewhat alarming, given my assumptions for the entire course now reflected in my planning and set forth in the syllabus. In some cases the deficiencies were truly acute; it became clear to me that several of my students were not able to compose complete sentences, or even to recognize the absence of the essential subject/predicate elements. I had understood that all my students had passed a relatively rigorous standardized composition exam as part of their freshman Composition I course. It was beyond me how they had been able to pass such a test, or for that matter, the course as a whole, with these primary writing difficulties.

These discrepancies led me to a detailed evaluation of the goals and makeup of the prior course, Composition I. I think I was able to isolate some of the basic problems with the ways in which writing was assessed in Composition I. This, in turn, allowed me to adjust my own future teaching of Composition II to be more in conjunction with the realities of that particular English department, though I still have some fundamental criticism of how the course was taught and evaluated.

The main lesson I learned regarding writing assessment is that grading policies and guidelines must be carefully thought out in the light of previous courses, particularly prerequisite requirements. One cannot merely assume, through perusal of catalogue copy, that stated ideals and goals are truly being implemented in previous levels. Although in the case of any single instructor, such problems can be met by trial, effort, and experience; I think the real need is for departmental curriculum reform.

English departments in particular are faced with the “masses” who must be quickly either taught or certified as “writers.” The pressures to react with a single draft “final writing exam” are high. One can quantify results and those who either fall through the cracks, or get passed on by impersonal error, can be ignored in the process. In truth of fact, this very course, Composition II, if properly designed with intelligent assessment, could prove to be one of the foundation courses of any college career.